Climbing El Capitan: Zodiac VI 5.7 A3+
There are few natural formations as massive, inspiring, and recognizable as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California. To some, its a symbol of the impossible and to others its a mecca of climbing and seeing what's possible. To me it was a longtime goal that took many years of climbing to even begin to understand. Since I was a child this single piece of granite and the accomplishments of the pioneering climbers before me have been a constant unwavering inspiration. (If you're ever wondering why I continue to do this stuff.) Bigwall climbing to me was what climbing "was" and all the rest was just practice. Is that true? Of course not, but climbing El Capitan is no small task and it takes a large array of skills to accomplish. I was going to write an awesome intro here but I'll save you time. This is an inspiring rock, so lets go climbing!
Photo: Ansel Adams Collection
Our time in the Valley started off slow, and mixed with an array of difficulties. We had a short list of routes we aspired to climb that summer, but big crowds and congestion on some of the more popular routes meant we were stuck near the ground. Our first goal was to climb The Nose, which ascends the center prow of El Cap. A sort of unoriginal route choice, I wasn't bent on going up this route very first push of the trip, but it seemed like a worthy goal and still a fine way to start building momentum for technically harder routes. We started early and hiked in two haul bags filled with all our gear and accommodations and started up the route. Things early on became unnecessarily stressful when a party of 3 attempted to pass us on Pitch 1. Wearing knee-pads with two lesser experienced climbers in tow they told us their plan was to fix ropes up to Sickle ledge (4 pitches up) and come down, a significantly smaller day than the 12 pitches we had planned to climb to El Cap Tower where we planned to sleep and continue the next day. After being rubbed the wrong way we kept climbing and gradually watched them disappear underneath us. We gained Sickle ledge, the first natural ledge big enough to stop and relax just to realize the less than ideal reality of out situation. No less than 4 parties (climbing teams) congested in front of us, moving quite slow all well below Dolt Tower and ultimately El Cap Tower we were trying to gain that day. It turns out while we were climbing the route up to Sickle, two other teams ascended fixed ropes (placed there days before) to the same point, effectively blocking us from continuing. A let down at least and a lessen in patience and different strategies at best. It seems most people do not climb this in continuous push, but rather prefer to do the beginning in sections while returning to the ground leaving their ropes up to return another day. Ethics and style aside, we can all agree this creates a royal cluster%#@% down low on the route and simply put is just a big headache. We went down and watched their progress from El Cap Meadow. Each team only made it a few pitches further. Some ended on small ledges while others were left to sleep hanging in their harnesses for the night likely to just end up bailing the next day. We came up with a new plan.
"When everything goes wrong, thats when the adventure starts."
- Yvon Chouinard
The route Zodiac had been on our list from the start of the trip. If everything went as planned (impossible) we would have climbed this route 3rd, after gaining experience and momentum on a few other El Cap climbs first. That never entirely happened and our time window for a successful ascent was becoming smaller. I was stressed beyond belief trying to build/maintain/rebuild psych and motivation to carry on with new changed plans almost daily, but perhaps this was finally the route to take us there. I was excited but aware that this was a technically harder route to climb at A3+ when compared to The Nose at C2 . That meant more consecutive difficult pitches that would push our mental and psychical ability and stamina even further. For the none aid-climbers reading this, the higher the rating number the harder the climbing and the likely-hood for large more dangerous falls, consecutive marginal gear placements (think body weight only, would not hold a fall) and more time required to climb. There is also a difference between Clean-Aid (C grade) and just Aid (A grade) which may require the use of a hammer to drive pitons, beaks, copperheads, etc. In short, its pretty damn complicated and extremely involved to fully understand the difference in ratings, equipment used, and potential hazards or potential risks. Here is a link more about the "dark art" of Aid Climbing for more info. It is an often miss-understood part of modern climbing, but is still the most common form of climbing found in the realm of Big Wall Climbing.
Topo: Yosemite Bigwalls
Zodiac is 15 pitches, about 1800' in length, and we planned to climb it over the period of 3 days, and 2 nights on the wall. We brought a gallon of water per person per day, meals for 3.5 days, 2 large haul bags, a portaledge to sleep on, and a little bit of whiskey to sip in the evenings. We hiked our gear up to the base in two loads the day before leaving the ground. We had learned previously (on a failed attempt of Tangerine Trip due to you guessed it, crowds) that carrying all of your gear to the base in one fell swoop is nothing short of pure agony (although effective). Finally now with all of our gear there, and nobody else queued up to start the climb, we were finally confident we would get out chance to head up El Cap. The only other team on route was a large Korean team of 4, who were on Pitch 7 when we left the ground but had already been on route for maybe 3 days. Everything looked like it was going to line up and we were very inspired to finally have an opportunity to climb and test ourselves on this iconic terrain. So after bringing our last load up to the base we used the last of the remaining sunlight to climb Pitch 1, and fix our ropes to best get moving fast in the morning. In this case this tactic didn't actually interfere with anyone else (like we had been troubled by before), and rather provided us a little confidence that we could "blast off" full speed tomorrow.
We awoke before sunrise and started early. We wanted to gain as much progress on day one to give us the best chance of staying on schedule, and ultimately making it to the summit before we ran out of food, water, energy, or sanity. We put the finishing touches on organizing our gear and got it prepared to be hauled upwards. We had ropes up to the Pitch 1 anchor, so we both started getting to work, leaving the ground at about the same time. Andy ascended up the lead-line (used for fall arrest and attached to gear on the pitch) while I ascended the free hanging haul line (used to haul the bags) which was a straight shot to the anchor with no need to stop and fiddle with gear. Once I got to the anchor, I reconfigured the ropes, tied in, and put myself on belay to continue climbing into Pitch 2. This technique, called short-fixing, is when the leader continues climbing while the second (person) is still cleaning (gear used) on the pitch below. It's a little different than the "conventional" belay system, but with experience in the aid-solo and lead-solo techniques, its really no different. This method allowed us to charge up the first two pitches pretty fast, and soon enough I was hauling the bags to our high point. We didn't short fix any of the other pitches on the route, but I thought about it! It sure is an efficient technique for moving faster and it's great when the leader doesn't have to haul every pitch they lead. I continued climbing and lead Pitch 3 and then Andy took over to lead Pitch 4 and 5.
Photo: Tom Evans
We climbed in blocks, when one climber takes the lead role for multiple pitches. This allows for a continuous "in the zone" effect with the leader, and they tend to make faster, better decisions in this fashion. When alternating every-other pitch the belay exchanges seem to take longer, and the leaders usually start off slower, instead of just continuing to move fast and efficient. By the time we switched over, and my current block was done, we were certainly starting to gain momentum.
Photo: Tom Evans
Andy finally got his chance to get "on the sharp end" and lead some pitches now! He took us up Pitch 4 and 5 in fine style, negotiating through some varied terrain including a long(ish) rivet ladder (a series of small weak bolts with no hangers), some moderate free-climbing on traversing terrain, and not to mention he got to haul the bags for a little. He also got to figure out the "inverted cam hook" beta, which in this case could be avoided with the smallest 000 C3. I also had some fun on this terrain while cleaning and found the traversy free-climbing parts to be the most engaging. Often a conventional lower-out method could be used to avoid big swings and/or large horizontal spacing between pieces of gear, but sometimes this was not probable. Ultimately I would have to re-climb these same semi-runout traverses while self belaying with my Gri-Gri backup. Not my favorite part of what we had done so far, but hey it worked! There is certainly an art to cleaning hard aid pitches and I don't think this receives enough attention by the general climbing populace.
Photo: Tom Evans
Photo: Andy Reger
Photo: Andy Reger
Now it was my turn to jump on again and I knew we should go at least one more pitch before welcoming the dark and some food from the comfort of our portaledge. We had to wait for a few minutes at the belay to contemplate what to do when some rain and thunder started coming in from above. The first thunder booms were a little intimidating and certainly left us both with the "So yeah now what!?" feeling. Most people would just think to themselves that they should just stop, wait it out, or go down, but the reality is you don't really have anywhere to go or anything else to do so waiting seems a lot more like doing nothing. Going down is only a small option as it would be very time consuming, physically demanding, and not what you came there to do. Of course, had it been dire enough we could have, or even totally stopped for the day and set up the ledge and fly for shelter. Luckily it wasn't nearly bad enough and we were able to just keep on keepin' on. I threw my rain jacket on as a precaution and started getting the gear ready to head up.
The next pitch was one that I had been "warned" about as a pitch to try avoid falling off. The "Black Tower" pitch as they call it, had some tricky aid (C3 followed by some free climbing with little gear straight to A3 beaks) all above a free standing tower with a slanting ledge below it. It seemed like a test-pitch for me if there was going to be one that day. Once I stepped off the belay I didn't hesitate and just kept climbing and took it one placement at a time. The exciting part really got good at the tower itself, a pinnacle of free-standing rock (with a 1"x 1.5" foot top?) that you surmount and balance on while placing your first bird-beak in the A3 terrain. The ledge below, and the tower itself will all soon become obstacles underneath you in the event of a fall from higher up, so you appreciate there coolness only momentarily. Its pretty wild for numerous reasons, but to say it simply and without adding drama, you are still climbing and the risks are at least briefly more apparent. I kept tinkering away and delicately placed and hung off beaks, hooks, small wires, and the occasional copper-head or small cam. This pitch I utilized the "mostly not-thinking too much" technique. That is to say if thinking means hesitating, as there is no room for delay or haste in marginal terrain. Not hesitating is smooth and smooth is fast, or something like that.
After completing Pitch 6, it was time to relax! All this climbing stuff sure is fun but damn it's a lot of work! We stopped at a place on the wall called the "Pearly Gates" where long lines of white bands or perhaps dikes, can be seen streaking through the wall (see the bottom of the photo two below). We had a small natural ledge that smelt distinctly like pee to stand on while we set up our own larger portaledge. Bringing a portaledge is a dream come true in a way, its the final comfort after putting in the extra effort to bring it along. For us, this was the only way to go and meant successful rest for a hopefully successful climb. I have been asked numerous times if its scary to sleep on the wall, but I must assure you that it is not frightening at all. Once you're plopped on the platform after 10-12 hours of hanging uncomfortably, its a big relief. It is honestly easy to forget that it is a straight drop back to the ground from there, mostly cause you are so relieved to not be climbing anymore. Although with that being said, in the back of my mind I was a little concerned that the party above us would accidentally drop something on us during the night. Fortunately the wall is STEEP, and although they camped directly above us by a few hundred feet, they were actually further out from the wall and their debris "should" clear us. This was an unfortunately objective hazard up there and it was too bad that they dropped something what seemed about every hour or so. Some of it winging near enough at a million miles an hour or so. I was perturbed by this but just hoped they might improve since we were gaining ground and would be seeing them soon enough. Smile!
Photo: Tom Evans
We slept in a little on day 2 probably waking up around 7:30-8am. The rest was well deserved but if you hang out too long you are just wasting time. Even in the morning the list of tasks is constant and it's rare everything is simply "done". Even when you get to the top you're not done! Typical morning goes something like this... wake up shortly after the sun comes up, lay there for a minute and think about kittens, put some music on, drink water, eat some food, eat something caffeinated, awkwardly poop, pack up, put at least one clean article of clothing on, organize gear, dismantle the ledge, transition into climbing, finally start climbing, never stop climbing! Honestly I think it's hard to be lazy up there because you're too engaged with what you are doing, there is no room for lolly gagging, although we have some fun along the way.
Our plan was for me (Matt) to lead up the first two pitches that day, and Andy would finish the day. We were in the "The White Circle" section of the route, which features beautiful gray clean cut granite corners and cracks. Each pitch on day 2 had A3, C3, or both, and it was definitely slower and more intricate climbing in general. I was more confident with the tricky Aid stuff than Andy, so I figured I'd at least get us started that day. What eventually happened is we both realized our strengths on the wall, and while I got in the lead groove Andy was getting into a cleaning groove and we were both feeling groovy. So I just kept leading all day and was able to knock out all 4 pitches through and out of the White Circle. This was a big day despite only climbing 4 pitches because they were all intricate, involved, and occasionally in your face. It was a grand time! Where did the time go? We had fun setting up the ledge in a full hanging stance as it became dark. Nothing is brutal to a wall climber.
Photo: Tom Evans
Photo: Andy Reger
But about the climbing... It took me longer than usual to lead Pitch 8 which had a decent amount of cam-hooking, fixed copperheads, and to my surprise a little bit of beaking. Near the top of the pitch there was some A2+ fixed copperheads, some of which I believe were missing. The most difficult move mentally for me was having to delicately tap in a small beak while hanging on a bashed head that looked more like spit out gum than climbing equipment. The truth of the matter is that head would not hold a fall, and since I did some hooking to get to the head, there was not a lot of gear under me. The fall would have been clean no doubt, but it would have be lengthy enough to get your attention. I had trouble making the beak "stick" and I could only lightly tap it in place, anything more caused it to fall out. After I placed it satisfactory enough I hung on it and tested it gently. Once it passed the test there was only one option, move up on it and place something better higher hopefully. I delicately weighted the piece and started climbing up my aid-ladder, pretending I was a light and delicate flower or something cute and fluffy, anything besides a 175lb bearded man with 25lbs of climbing gear dangling off a bent piece of metal that just fell out twice. It worked and before I knew it I was through the tough section, longing for the anchor that was still far enough away. Are we having fun yet?
Photo: Tom Evans
"...Climbing [is a] useless sport. You get to be conquistadors of the useless. You climb to the summit and there is nothing there. You could hike to the top from another direction. It's how you get there that is the important part."
- Yvon Chouinard
Photo: Andy Reger
Photo: Tom Evans
I lead the "Nipple" pitch for my 3rd pitch of the day. It is such a recognizable feature and is clearly visible with the naked eye from the ground. I was stoked to jump on! Not to mention it looks like a giant boob and that's a big bonus. The climbing was exciting and leading A3/C3 traversing terrain is engaging because you are always faced with potential pedulum falls of uncertain length. To make matters better you get to place numerous and consecutive inverted cam hooks, which are body weight only and you don't leave them behind for protection. To give a representation of the strength of a cam hook just know that they visibly flex under your body weight and will bend open if overloaded. They are great for a few moves but crap for protection, i.e. catching you in a fall. Luckily after a few hook moves I was able to fish in small cams and small offset nuts that could inspire a little more confidence. I tried to place as much gear as possible (sorta) to make Andy's cleaning a little more reasonable. Cleaning traversing terrain is also notoriously difficult and it has it own inherent risks and challenges. We found success on this pitch and there was only a little grunting and it was mostly fun! I distinctly remember being psyched to reach the bolt after the Nipple itself, after a short struggle with a wide crack that I wanted to climb upside-down but aided. I was so relived to stop grunting I clipped into the bolt and hung from it with one hand and did the classic "Air Jordan" maneuver way off the deck. Woohoo! After that there was one last pitch of steep climbing to get us under the "Devil's Brow" where we set up camp for the night.
Photo: Tom Evans
The last day I woke up still psyched as can be, but noticeably physically fatigued. I dreaded tearing down the ledge because I knew it would be a five minute struggle. Boohoo right? I got my act together and was off leading again in short time. I was looking forward to a change in the terrain and welcomed the idea of something less than vertical but that never hardly happened. The climbing was pretty standard stuff early in the day, but then got more exciting with hooking sections. I did 6 consecutive hook moves on one of the pitches, but they were short and the hooks were generally easily placed and good. That being said I did eventually rip a hook and fell on Pitch 12. Being fatigued I started to overlook little details and placed a less than ideal hook and in the wrong blown out spot. The hook I really wanted was on the other aider (I was already weighting) so I compromised and used a Talon hook that was available. It was pretty crap but looked "good enough" and I got on it assuming I'd place something better in just a few moments anyway. I hung on it briefly and then I heard to the distinct sound of metal violently popping off granite and remembered getting clunked in the helmet by the gear i just tried to hang on. Then before I had to time to think I saw the wall streaking in front of me, and that's when I realized I was falling. I probably fell maybe 15-20' feet, so generally speaking small potatoes. Due to my slow reaction speed it was honestly the least scary fall I have ever experienced. I suppose its hard to be afraid of something when you don't realize it's happening. I immediately got back on and started climbing, we weren't done yet!
When I finished Pitch 12 I had caught the Korean team of 4 in front of us. One of them knew a little english and when I got up to the ledge now offered me some water, which was great because we were pretty much out. The team had used almost every inch of usable space on the ledge, but I was able to wiggle in and clipped one bolt and built a gear anchor off to the side. They were nice and a unique bunch, but it was business as usual for me and I needed to haul and keep this show on the road. Me and one of their teammates chatted, of sorts, briefly while I was setting stuff up. They asked "How long" and I said 3 days. He responded "Us 5 day". I got out the topo (map) of the route and we pointed at stuff generally indicating our plans. It was an awkward moment of sorts but it became clear our team was going to press on, and we were going to have to pass them. They had planned to hopefully make it to the top by dark, and then they were going to sleep on the top and descend in the morning. I told them our plan was to get the top in the daylight and start descending before dark. We were pretty much out of water and pretty determined to succeed with our schedule. The next pitch was a nightmare as Andy lead up the damn run-out wide crack and they hauled loads in a big trail of a cluster rats nest who knows what. We ducked and dived as they continued to drop more stuff, including the bag for their portaledge that blew clear to the east ledges or beyond. It was not an enjoyable pitch but we got to the next ledge, still being shared with some members of their team. I took the lead and again and got the hell out of there. There was so much confusion, yelling, and headaches it was too chaotic for my soul. Soon it would be over. I remembered so much noise while I was leading the next pitch, but then an unusual calmness and silence as I was in the middle of a 20 foot hook section. Finally silence! Haha. Just one more pitch to the summit!
The last pitch was not very exciting, but it was the last one! It had some odd climbing still and maybe was C2 or so with the occasional hook or rivet move. When I finally finished and stode on top I realized the anchor was sort of awkwardly placed, or maybe I was awkwardly there. I looked for better options and found a tree a little further back so I could finally be standing on flat ground again. This was a fine idea, but caused additional rope drag and hauling was even more of a nightmare. Lets just say it felt really, really, really, heavy. Needless to say I didn't quit and hauled it up with some help from Andy getting it over the lip.
Finally we both stood at the top! We barely looked at each other let alone celebrated how awesome we felt. We manage a hug and a little bit of smiling as we threw all gear off our bodies into a big heap on the ground. I hadn't taken my harness off in 3 days. There was no summit photo, summit beer, or summit anything. We'd just finished this huge objective and life changing(?) achievement right? Nope, never finished. We still had to go down and we were losing light. I said "Lets get the hell out of here" and we start cramming stuff back into haul bags to be packed out. Andy did less hauling so he carried the bigger bag with bulky heavy things in it (also with the poop) and I carried the slightly smaller bag with heavy smaller things in it. Nothing was light except the empty water bottles. Before you knew it we were staggering down. We found the trail right away and kept following it east towards the ledges descent where we could do 4 rappels back down the ground and continue to hike out. Not much to say about the descent besides we barely got down rappels in the daylight and we didn't do anything stupid, it was just more process in an extremely process filled process. Once the rappels were done there was a slight sense of relief because it was pretty much the end of the technical challenges and now it was just walking with heavy stuff, still. I was starting to crash fast and I finally realized I had actually way overexerted myself. What do you do, I kept walking. We finally made it back to the car and I just sat down and didn't say anything. We had to completely dump the largest haul bag of it contents because naturally the keys for the van were at the very bottom of the bag. We opened the van and had some water. Andy jumped in the river. I took my shoes off.
Photo: Andy Reger
All in all it was an amazing experience, but damn that was a lot of work! Overall I lead and hauled 12 of 15 pitches on my first El Capitan route, a statistic that sounds daunting, stupid, or awesome I'm not exactly sure. Whatever it means, we actually did it. I thought I would feel more in awe about the accomplishment afterwards but mostly I just felt really, really tired. Its not until just about now (two weeks later) that I can fully comprehend and realize the scope of our efforts and begin to remember all the little details and moments. It feels great, but I am not complete or finished with the challenge. Let's face it this was only one route on El Cap and I'm not stopping now. When's the next trip!? New Dawn sounds fun.
Thank you to all the friends and family who helped support us in one way or another on the ascent. Much love and respect!